Reporting in 2010, NPR noted an epidemic of poorly-handled campus sexual assaults in the United States, noting that one in five women on U.S. campuses could expect to be sexually assaulted. The expose shamed colleges and universities large and small, and triggered action from the Department of Justice to demand updates to the handling of sexual assault cases on campus. As the case of Landen Gambill illustrates, though, we still have a long way to go when it comes not just to preventing sexual assault on campus, but to making sure victims are treated respectfully and their cases are handled responsibly.
Gambill was in an abusive relationship that included rape as a freshman at the University of North Carolina. Like many people in such relationships, she struggled, but ultimately was able to leave and reported him in the only way she could: to the campus Honor Court. The Court, she says, treated her like the perpetrator, shaming her for not leaving her boyfriend earlier, disclosing private information to him, and making her feel even worse about the situation than she already did, a not uncommon situation for many students attempting to get justice after sexual assault.
So, last month, she joined a group of students in filing a formal complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, noting that the university mistreated sexual assault victims and asking for justice. 10 days later, she received a notice that she had violated the honor code, allegedly by creating an “intimidating” environment to her rapist, a man who remains unnamed. Gambill’s focus in discussions about the issue has been on how the university treated her and created a hostile environment for her, with no specific mention of her attacker, yet her reward for speaking out has been a threatening letter, which she claims is clearly intended to intimidate her.
If the case goes to the honor court, she could face serious penalties, including possible expulsion. All for being brave enough to report her rape, navigate the university’s outdated system for handling sexual assault charges, and then protesting about her mistreatment as a victim. Like many whistleblowers, Gambill has been put in the unenviable position of simultaneous hero to people lobbying for better treatment of campus rape victims, and pariah for the university that doesn’t want to see its reputation besmirched. What UNC may not have expected was that in addition to being outspoken about her rape, Gambill was equally outspoken about the honor code charges, and they’ve entered public conversation.
Writing in an opinion editorial for the Campus Blueprint, friend Carey Hanlin noted the history of sexual assault on campus and the fact that Gambill is far from the only woman who’s faced this treatment. And, she says, “For our own administrators to work actively against sexual assault survivors and hide their cases away as if to pretend that nothing happened is unacceptable. The use of the threat of suspension or even expulsion against Landen for being vocal about her rape is intolerable and horrifying.”
UNC’s in the spotlight now, and it has a choice between doing the right thing or telling a rape victim to shut up, and, by extension, sending a clear signal to women on campus that their safety is not the school’s priority.
We’re pulling for you, Landen.
Photo credit: Zach Mullen